Lindenwood-Belleville at Robert Morris
Edge Ice Arena
November 9, 2019
The starting lineup introduction in hockey is largely a pointless exercise, and the pomp surrounding it has always struck me as wildly disproportionate to its actual importance. Just before the game starts, of course, everyone lines up on their respective goal line, and a booming voice reads off 12 names. Those identified players will skate to their blue line as they’re called out and remain there for the national anthem, presented to attendees for the duration of the song as The Most Important People Here.
If a team offers five game update tweets, two will be the starters from each team. There may be a graphic, or a video presentation if the rink has that capability. The house lights may even be dimmed. All for a collection of people who – goalies excepted, of course – will spend less than a minute on the ice once the puck is dropped.
But, if nothing else, sometimes they can give offer a decent, although extremely obvious, metaphor. So when the bulk of Robert Morris’ roster watched from the bench as Eagles starters Ali Sinnett, Micki Crawford, Morgan Donchez, Emily Urban, Abby Cardew, and Annette Scislowicz faced the entire Lindenwood-Belleville squad both participating in the lineup ceremony and loudly singing the Star-Spangled Banner (despite being roughly 60 percent Canadian), the expertise of Tolkien or Melville was not required. That’s pretty much how the game went.
Scislowicz has quietly become one of the ACHA’s best goalies and played like it for most of the afternoon as the Eagles looked outnumbered, even if they actually weren’t. Callie Philippe’s rebound tally and Lindsay Gillis’ power play bomb had the Lynx up 2-0 before the home team could even manage a shot on goal. Alicia Williams made it 3-0 on another greasy effort late in the first period to, realistically, crystallize the outcome. It could have been six or seven without Scislowicz, who kept more than her share of pucks out by channeling hall of famers and their favored techniques, like Johnny Bower’s pad stack and Dominik Hasek’s barrel roll.
“We come out strong sometimes, and then one goal gets in against us and we kind of drop down the momentum as opposed to just stepping up to the challenge,” RMU senior forward Rachel Arias said. “Inconsistency in our work ethic is our biggest issue.”
The roof officially caved in on the Eags early in the third period with LUB goals on consecutive shifts, followed by Williams’ second a few minutes later. After 40 saves and 51:01 of crease time, Scislowicz was mercifully lifted, and it seemed like more of a reward than a punishment. Her outing was a heroic effort that simply ran out of gas.
“We tend to fall apart as a team and we can’t play 60 full minutes of hockey,” a frustrated Urban, one of the team’s co-captains, offered.
Wisconsin-native sniper Cardew did manage to break a potential Maia Busi shutout on a nice shorthanded goal with 14 seconds left, but all in all, it was a largely forgettable contest – the sooner, the better from the Eagles’ point of view.
Forgettable to most, but not to me. Because nothing felt right about any of it.
Roughly 11 years and eight months earlier, in that same building and on a typically-chilly Chicago March afternoon, Ashley Boye set up shop during a late-game power play. Boye was intimately familiar with Edge Ice Arena as a former Eagles player, including a starring role on RMU’s first national title team – but she transferred out after a pair of seasons and was now returning as the enemy, an All-American forward from Lindenwood’s St. Charles, Missouri campus.
“Ashley played for Robert Morris, then she transferred to St. Lawrence University, then we ended up at Lindenwood together and played on a line,” former LU star Kat Hannah said. “That was awesome, and we had a great girl from the Sweden national team on our line [Natalie Larsen], and that was probably the best line I played with in college.”
For Boye, this wasn’t a social visit. At that moment, she was looking for somewhere to stick a dagger in her old team.
From the right point, she found the Lions’ Shannon Murphy lower in the zone; Murphy, in turn, fired through the middle for defenseman Gillian Couture on the weak side, and Couture one-timed the puck past goaltender Ashley Miller. After that tally and 3:34 of clock suffocation, a butt-puckering 2:00 of it spent on the penalty kill, Lindenwood had won the game and the 2008 national championship by a 2-1 count over their biggest rival, on their home ice. It was the second title in three years for LU and would kick off a run of three in a row, four in five seasons all told, with players like 2008 ACHA National Tournament MVP Boye, Hannah, goaltender Becca Bernet, Amy Dlugos, and later, Mandy Dion leading the way.
“It really started in 2006, the year we won our first national championship, we played Robert Morris in Colorado, and we lost 8-0. It was one of the only games where I didn’t have a point that year,” said Hannah, a two-time Zoë Harris Award winner.
“And then we played them in March, at the national championship in 2006, and that was the very first time we won, and we were down 2-0 with five minutes left in the game. I looked at the bench and told them we were going to win, then [on the tying goal] they got a penalty with two minutes left in the game, and we scored on a power play to put it into overtime, and then we eventually won. So that’s where that rivalry really does get its start.”
Robert Morris wasn’t exactly the Washington Generals though. The Eagles won that 2005 championship with Boye on the team, defeating Michigan State for the crown, then began co-authorship of a four-year run of ACHA finals exclusively featuring RMU and Lindenwood the following year. The Lions won three of those trophy games, including the 2006 and 2008 contests, while Robert Morris managed to take the 2007 title with a team led by Savannah Varner, the winner of both the Zoë Harris Award and the ACHA tournament MVP that season. Varner was just one of a parade of five Eagles to win the ACHA’s signature individual honor (Krista Sleen, Danielle McCutcheon, Ramey Weaver, and Hayley Williams are the others), a number that remains the national best.
“I loved to play those guys,” Hannah admitted. “One of the things that people don’t know about RMU and Lindenwood and the rivalry is that it’s rich in blood, a lot of deep history with relationships and all sorts of things like that. But we were friends. We were literally on countless nights in hotel rooms, just hanging out with each other, and shooting that sort of stuff, and then play each other the next day.”
“But I [still] feel a very certain way when I walk into Robert Morris’ arena,” Hannah added. “That place used to light my blood on fire.”
It was a run of iron-fisted dominance by two teams unmatched in history, not even by the more recent Liberty-Miami run. And just over a decade after it ended, barely a trace of it will remain in the ACHA.
Lindenwood’s final ACHA season was 2010-11, but the Lions received the happiest possible ending through the transition of their program to the NCAA Division I level. So far, their eight-plus NCAA seasons haven’t been quite as successful as their eight in the ACHA, to put it extremely diplomatically. But thanks to the opening of the gorgeous Centene Community Ice Center and the hiring of 1998 Olympic gold-medal-winning goal scorer Shelley Looney as the team’s third head coach over this past offseason, there’s at least a spark of positivity around the program.
A very select group – Penn State, Boston University and Ohio State are a few of the other DI notables – enjoy that sort of graduation day. Much more frequently, ACHA programs, even dominant ones, disappear in less glamorous fashion.
The team at Lindenwood’s Belleville, Illinois campus fired up for the 2014-15 season and, at least in spirit, picked up where its sister team left off. The Lynx started an active run of four straight nationals appearances in year two, including a trip to the 2019 championship game, and have a very-openly-stated goal of a national title this season. However, don’t file LUB as a budding dynasty just yet: Lindenwood announced in May that it is ending undergraduate programs and athletics at its Belleville location in 2020. While things will purportedly carry on after the newer team relocates down the hall from its NCAA sisters at the Centene Center, the dynamics in play will be as different as its new uniforms.
The fates of the two Lindenwood teams aren’t entirely unique. Regardless of how good a program is or how it is structured, drastic change is never far away. Those following a traditional club model tend to lean disproportionately on student officers and (largely) part-time volunteer coaches, and can often be a couple graduations and a touch of life reality away from an apathy-riddled disaster. The fully-funded teams, while more stable in some ways, are generally found at smaller, NAIA-type schools and still subject to their own set of perils often affecting the entire institution, as Lindenwood-Belleville can attest. NCAA Division I teams have money and a robust athletic department to control against ebbs and flows. ACHA teams live on a tightrope.
Everything in life may be temporary, but everything in the ACHA is even more temporary.
“Temporary” isn’t always a terminal disease, in fact it usually isn’t, but symptoms often include transformation into a ghost chained down by weak participation and losing records, desperately waiting for heavily-invested individuals to show up and breathe life into them once again. And just like Haley Joel Osment once told Bruce Willis, they’re everywhere. A lot of times, they don’t even know they’re ghosts.
Wisconsin is one of them. After winning two of the first four ACHA women’s championships, the Badgers fell from relevance about ten years ago, but delicately straddle the line between Division 1 and Division 2 without really mattering to anyone beyond the players on the team, while skating under a pair of banners that are much further away than the arched roof of the Camp Randall Shell. Northeastern was the Division 2 national champion in 2010, then the Division 1 national champion in 2012, but program architect Nick Carpenito’s coaching career took off (he’s now the associate head coach with NU’s NCAA team) and the Huskies disintegrated without him.
Teams like Buffalo and Northern Michigan had become ghosts, but each experienced a resurgence after dropping to Division 2, where both have been title contenders in recent years. Rainy River was an early powerhouse in the lower division after it was established in 2006-07, winning three of the first five national championships (still a D2 record), but had to go on hiatus a couple years ago due to declining interest and has been a non-competitive shell since returning.
It’s often said that people tend to attach themselves to the music, clothing, and trends that date to their prime well after they’re fashionable, and Edge Ice Arena proves that buildings are sometimes no different. There are banners, of course, one of which is the Eagles’ 2007 championship banner, displayed prominently in the lobby as if the accomplishment was freshly earned. There’s also a trophy case with a specific fixation on the 2004 through 2006 period, when RMU’s program was new and success was a novelty.
The USHL’s Chicago Steel was a long-time tenant, but departed in 2015 and left behind suites with internet connections that don’t work and menus for food service that no longer exists, a giant spotlight for those over-produced player introductions that’s been dark for half a decade, and an abandoned concession stand near the Eagles’ women’s locker room. While most of the world looks forward to the beginning of the 2020s, Edge remains somewhere near the end of the 2000s, when championships and future NHLers were the norm.
So what happened?
That’s never a simple question to answer, in any context. You could probably start with the fact that, according to the Chicago Tribune, Robert Morris enrolled 6,100 students in 2008 and just 1,900 in 2018, a catastrophic drop, regardless of how you dissect it. Like many similarly-situated schools, RMU uses sports as an enrollment driver, and turns a disproportionate amount of its budget back into the teams that delivered its students. Under that structure, declining enrollment, whether due to the usual broad reasons (concern over student loan debt and increased scrutiny of the value of a college education) or something more specific (increasing numbers of Illinois high school graduates who choose to go to school out of state), is death for an athletic program.
For Eagles women’s hockey, the effects of that belt tightening are probably seen most obviously in the coaching staff. Since original head coach John Burke’s abrupt departure in the middle of the 2008-09 season, RMU has had six different head coaches over 11 years overseeing a series of diminishing returns that were largely beyond their control since, unlike many other fully-funded teams, Robert Morris’ leaders need to hold down other jobs in and out of hockey. Current head coach Mason Strom also teaches and coaches at Fenwick High School, and associate head coach Carla Pentimone fills numerous other roles in the game, even including as an assistant coach with an entirely different ACHA program, DePaul’s Division 2 men’s squad.
The pitfalls of that arrangement should be obvious, even before looking down at the Eagles’ bench during the game against the Lynx and seeing that neither Strom nor Pentimone were present; former RMU men’s star Nate Chasteen managed things in their absence. Substitute faces during games, or things like asking opponents to wear their dark jerseys at home and white jerseys on the road because the school can only afford one full set at a time, are more optically awkward than anything that actually affects the team’s performance, but they’re nevertheless symptoms of the larger problem and, cumulatively, can bleed into the roster’s psychology.
Recruiting that consists mostly of the coaches’ existing circles because the manpower and budget don’t allow for anything else is a more on-point story. Robert Morris’ most recent national tournament team, 2013-14, had star players from Alaska, Alberta, Minnesota, Manitoba, and Ontario to go along with a crop of local talent, while the current roster has just three total players from outside of Illinois and the adjacent states.
Because of some of that, or all of it, along with RMU stubbornly clinging to the idea that an overly-generous distribution of grant money was essential to recruiting (in fact, student-athletes were permitted to double dip by playing multiple sports until last year), the program bled alongside the university for several years.
Then, just about a month ago, the hammer finally fell: Robert Morris announced that plans are in the works to merge into neighboring Roosevelt University, continuing forward under the Roosevelt name.
While this might read like an obituary, it really shouldn’t. Robert Morris is not Wisconsin or Rainy River. It isn’t even Lindenwood-Belleville, as superficially similar as their situations may be. LUB is being absorbed by a campus with an existing NCAA team, while RMU will be acquired by a separate institution with no current hockey team.
The case for the merger actually being a positive isn’t paper thin. Combined, the Roosevelt-RMU enrollment will be back at the level it was when the Eagles were a contender. That, by itself, doesn’t solve everything – Roosevelt is also much smaller than it used to be – but it at least buys some time to resolve the issues that led to the current reality while possibly creating more resources for athletics in the short term.
On the ice, the newly-rechristened Lakers will have a couple more years of Scislowicz and Donchez and at least one more of Sinnett, a fantastic puck-moving blueliner. Urban, one of the ACHA’s elite power forwards, plans to return for a fifth year. The team has nine freshmen, including a couple standouts, proving that the program can still be a draw for quality players.
But even more than any of that, the merger is a clean break from the past. And the more time you spend around the current Eagles, the more you get the sense that all of those banners and all of those trophies are an albatross, less a reminder of what the team can become than what it isn’t right now. While nobody openly admits to that being the case, it’s not terribly difficult to read between the lines.
“Being here for about five or six years, it’s definitely been a change in the program,” Arias said. “We don’t really carry the history of our program that much, it seems to be a little bit of a scramble unfortunately. My time being here, I’ve had at least three different coaches, so each time we’ve kind of come in new each year, the coach starts off fresh.”
“While we look at history, we also focus on the idea not every team is going to be the same, and you’ve gotta keep pushing forward with who you’ve got,” Urban added.
As for the younger players? Freshman defender Cora Weibye was born in May of 2001, making her five when RMU won its last national championship. She didn’t end up at the school because of tradition or because she might win a title during her career, she chose it because of reasons that remain in place without those things.
“What really sold RMU for me was the schedule,” Weibye explained. “It allowed for me to easily manage being both a college student and athlete, and I hope that it remains manageable next year and in the following years.”
“I also really enjoyed the team dynamic and the relationships between the players. From my first recruit skate onward I could tell that there was something special about the team chemistry and that has only proven to be true in the past several months. Despite our less than stellar current record and looming merger, I couldn’t imagine myself with any other team.”
With Arias done after this season and others like Urban moving on within the next couple years, Weibye and her classmates shoulder a lot of responsibility for defining what it means to be a Laker, not an Eagle. And she’s looking forward to it.
“The merger was definitely a curve ball for all of us, returning and new players alike,” she said. “We were told that we didn’t have to worry about the program being cut or merged due to Roosevelt not having a women’s hockey team. I can only hope that this is a good thing for the team in the long run, hopefully we can receive better funding for the hockey programs.”
Trophies are nice, but there’s an expiration date on their relevance, and they don’t pay the bills. The fruits of the merger might. If nothing else, there’s a guarded optimism about the program’s future for the first time in several years, a sincere belief that things can and will be better than they are right now. That’s not the entire answer, of course, but it could be the beginning of one.
So maybe losing the past is what the team needs to move forward.
Maybe, just this once, temporary is a good thing.